Pollution Solution

Since September 11, local politicians have made efforts to assure us that security at the county's water-treatment facilities has been dramatically increased. While certainly a prudent course of action, it ignores a far greater danger. The real threat to the county's water supply doesn't come from terrorists but from lobbyists and special-interest groups such as the rock-mining industry, which appears to be dictating policy inside the county manager's office.

New Times has obtained a copy of a draft county ordinance that would have assessed a 15-cent-per-ton fee on the rock miners, with the money going toward much-needed improvements at the county's water-treatment facilities. The proposal was crafted by the county's Water and Sewer Department (WASD) and enjoyed the support of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).

But after a July 23 meeting with a lobbyist for the rock-mining industry, County Manager Steve Shiver decided to reject the recommendations of his professional staff members and ordered them to abandon plans to present the ordinance to county commissioners for consideration. Commissioners were never informed of the proposed ordinance.

Why assess a fee on the rock miners? Because their industry poses a threat to our drinking water.

Miami-Dade County draws its potable water from a source known as the Biscayne Aquifer, an underground sponge of porous limestone that holds huge volumes of slow-moving water, which is pumped to the surface at various wellfields. Two of the largest wellfields are located in the northwest portion of the county. Because Miami-Dade relies on ground water, which is free of the types of contamination commonly found in lakes and rivers, its treatment facilities are not required to filter and clean the water as stringently as communities that rely on surface water.

Northwest Miami-Dade also is home to the rock-mining industry, which excavates between 35 and 40 million tons of limestone each year. The county, in fact, provides half the state's supply of the soft stone, used in concrete and road construction. As the limestone is dug out, underground water seeps into the pits, forming giant artificial lakes. This surface water then becomes vulnerable to contaminants. The danger is that as rock miners encroach upon the wellfields, water from the pits will migrate toward the pumps and eventually be drawn into the county's system. Once that happens, our water supply will be contaminated by whatever affects the surface water. And since the county's treatment facilities aren't designed to treat those microorganisms, the public could be exposed to major health risks.

In 1993, for example, more than 100 people died and 400,000 became ill after Milwaukee's water supply was contaminated by cryptosporidium, a pathogen that causes severe illness similar to the deadly E. coli bacteria. Following the outbreak the federal government required municipalities like Milwaukee that rely on surface water to upgrade their treatment plants to filter out cryptosporidium and other dangerous organisms. But since Miami-Dade uses ground water, no such improvements were made at the county's treatment plants. If our water supply were to be contaminated by surface water from rock pits, however, local residents would be at risk.

"The rock pits create a habitat for these little critters," says Bill Brant, director of the county's water and sewer department. "Anyone who knows what happened in Milwaukee knows how serious this can be."

Brant, who only spoke to New Times after being confronted with the existence of the proposed ordinance, has dedicated much of his adult life to serving the citizens of Miami-Dade. He's worked at the county for more than 23 years and has been the director of WASD since 1998. Chief among his responsibilities is making sure the water supply is safe and free from contamination.

In recent years, Brant says, he'd become increasingly concerned with the rock-mining industry and its possible effects on our water supply. "I realized how close they were coming to our wellfields," he says. In some cases the distance is only a few hundred yards.

Brant believed the threat was significant enough to draft the proposed ordinance assessing fees on rock miners, revenue from which would be used to help upgrade the county's water-treatment plants. "We were looking for ways to protect our wellfields," he explains. "What we were trying to do was anticipate a problem rather than waiting for a crisis to develop. If we wait until we find evidence that our ground-water supply has been contaminated, then it will be too late."

The cost of purchasing and installing more-advanced filtration systems is estimated at roughly $70 million, according to Brant. Under the proposed ordinance, the rock miners wouldn't be asked to shoulder all the costs, just $30 million. Language contained in the ordinance says it all: "It is the intent of this [ordinance] to ensure that the county is able to continue to provide safe and high-quality drinking water to county residents from the John E. Preston and Hialeah water treatment plants in the event that rock mining activities result in those plants drawing a portion of water supplied to county residents from surface water...." The ordinance goes on to state, "Due to the increased risk of bacteriological contamination, such waters require additional treatment to render such waters compliant with drinking water standards."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede